Spring 2006

The Force

Better living through electricity

Wolfgang Schivelbusch

Three friends miming “Rock of Ages,” Easter 1935. Courtesy Collection of Harvey Tulcensky.

Would the last century have transpired more fortunately, without world wars, if politics in the Germany of 1914 had been determined not by heavy industrialism and large-scale land owning east of the Elbe, but rather by electric companies? This question sounds more outlandish than it is.

Among the theories that attempt to explain what went wrong in Germany’s twentieth-century history is the “rye and iron thesis.” It argues that the German urkatastrophe of World War I was the result of two branches of the economy controlling foreign policy. In a fateful alliance, the militaristic Junkers (rye) and the Ruhr barons (iron) built up the navy (a strategy that antagonized and drew Great Britain into the anti-German coalition) and thus set the course that was to lead to the defeat of 1918, Hitler, and World War II.

The second part of this theory invokes virtual-history speculation. Germany would have spared herself and the world great suffering if, instead of the “old” industries, their technically and politically “modern” counterparts had exerted more political influence. As world leaders in their fields, the chemical and electric industries, so the speculation goes, had no interest in military adventures. What they needed and wanted was peaceful globalism. The theory suggests that the “modern,” rational, and cosmopolitan internationalism of the electrical and chemical industries would likely have produced a much more flexible, pragmatic, and peaceful foreign policy. Thus, there would have been no World War I if AEG and Siemens had dominated policy-making instead of Krupp and Thyssen. If Emperor Wilhelm II had been invited more often to the Villa Rathenau than to the Villa Huegel, there would have been no Ludendorff, no Hindenburg, no Hugenberg—and, ultimately, no Hitler financed by the barons from the Ruhr region.[1]

If this had come true, it would have been the last, and most impressive, episode in the long chain associating electricity with salvation.

Of course, no historian would formulate it so decisively. Yet in the back of one’s mind, the “what if” of this scenario remains hauntingly seductive. It echoes from afar what was already clear to everyone in 1900. For, at the beginning of the century, electricity and modernity were equated-electric current was viewed as nothing less than the medium and energy source of modernity, and the industry it produced and nourished to life was still perceived as something that had little in common with the capitalist industrialism typical of the preceding period. In contrast, electricity was widely associated with the miraculous. Indeed, the fin de siècle imagined this new form of energy as the “electric fairy” that would free the industrial world from its gloomy accompaniments, creating an effortless, agreeable, and, above all, work- and exploitation-free society of pleasure. It promised redemption.

Émile Zola was one of countless literati who formulated this hopeful vision. In his utopian novel Work (1900), the factory environment is entirely electrified:

The machines did nearly everything. Driven by electricity, they formed an army of obedient, enduring, and indefatigable workers. If one of their steel arms broke, it could simply be replaced without any pain. The machines had now become the worker’s friend and no longer his competitors as before. They were liberating machines, universal tools that toiled for man while he rested. The only thing that remained for him to do was to monitor and control the machines by pushing levers and buttons. The workday lasted no more than four hours, and no worker was occupied with the same task for more than two of those. When a colleague replaced him, he occupied himself with something else—in public life or in culture—altogether. After electrification had freed factory-halls from their earlier deafening noise, these were filled with the workers’ merry singing. These songs, combined with the quietly and powerfully working machines, produced a hymn to the justice, glory, and redemption of work.[2]

A few years earlier, Charles Steinmetz, chief engineer at General Electric, had been the first to advance the equivalence of electrification and socialism. This electro-technologist had emigrated to the United States after being persecuted as a young socialist in Bismarckian Germany. He argued that, just as the steam engine had once been the motor of capitalism, electric current would become the driving force behind socialism. Steinmetz understood his role within a capitalist corporation in a strictly Marxist sense: it was here that the most advanced form of capitalism would turn, in an electric flash, into socialism. There is a strange link between Charles Steinmetz and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who learned, while exiled to Siberia as a young man, the basics of electricity from a fellow convict, an engineer in the field. This lesson became evident when three years after the October Revolution, following Lenin’s suggestion, the Communist Party Congress of 1920 decided to electrify Russia. Their motto ran: “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification.” Less well-known, however, is that, at the same Congress, Lenin designated this electrification project as “our second Party program.” He advocated the “electrical training of the masses,” and closed his presentation of principles with the words: “If Russia covered itself with a dense network of electrical power-plants and powerful technological installations, then our communist economic structure would become a model for the approaching socialism of Europe and Asia.” The order is notable: Russia will first have an impact on the world via its electrification, and only then through Communism.

Pavel Nikolaevich Filonov (1882–1941), GOELRO (National Plan for the Electrification of Russia), 1930.

The salvational role of electricity has a prehistory dating from the eighteenth century. What was known as “electrical theology” posited that God was the electric source of all life, and that life itself was an electrified state of being. The body was enlivened by an electrical balm, much as in Genesis when God breathed life into clay; according to Prokop Divisch, an electrical theologian, death was the disappearance of electrical tension from the body. Electrical medicine soon developed out of electrical theology—indeed, the boundaries between the two remain fluid up into the present. From the Mesmerism of the end of the eighteenth century to the electroshock therapy of the twentieth century, health has been predicated on a ratio of electrical tension and direction understood as a current: illness is the disturbance or interruption of this current, and healing its re-establishment with the aid of electrical apparatuses.

The literary imagination went even further, it represented the equation “life = electricity” as reversible. Dead matter without a soul could be animated by introducing electrical current. In “Some Words with a Mummy,” Edgar Allan Poe resuscitates an ancient Egyptian corpse in this fashion. Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein brings his monster, constructed from dead body parts, to life with a force like electricity but without referring to it by name (it was the twentieth-century film version that first did that). In his novel l’Ève future, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam creates the ideal woman as an electrically animated automaton. A latecomer to this tradition is the demonically destructive female robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, likewise given life by electricity.

In keeping with such visions, fantasies, and the general spirit of that era, nothing seemed electrically impossible. For example, the fashionable illness neurasthenia, the precedent for today’s depression, was defined as an exhaustion of nervous energy. It was considered curable by the introduction of electric current. Exhausted masculine potency was regarded as electrically regenerable by means of battery-powered “potency-belts,” offered for sale by the Chicago mail-order firm Sears-Roebuck. The same was true with respect to agricultural productivity. Here a form of electric fertilizing via the galvanic enrichment of the soil was suggested. As a result of this process, radishes and turnips supposedly acquired an exceptionally exquisite taste. Finally, there was the fantasy of direct electrical nourishment. Humans would no longer sit down at the table to eat, but rather would enter an electrically-charged cage for a few minutes—when they left, they were sated.

All these ideas and plans were discussed in leading technological publications. As in the eighteenth century, the boundaries between electrical theology and electrical medicine were fluid. The patent for an “electrical harmonizer,” intended to prevent married couples’ quarrels, seemed to be just as at home in a science fiction novel as in Scientific American. Finally, one last medical-therapeutic use of electric current was devised, as at one time the guillotine had been, by a doctor who intended to rationalize (or, as he put it, humanize) execution. The electric chair was introduced in 1888 in New York State, because—according to the government commission that approved it—it not only induced death quasi-clinically, but also potentially made the executioner superfluous. The deadly flow of current could be directly administered from the governor’s office with the push of a button. Even a woman—such as the governor’s secretary—could be considered for this task, now as simple as child’s play. The first electric execution demonstrated that it was not so painless; instead, the victim squirmed around for minutes in spasms before dying. Nevertheless, this fact did not cause the electricity enthusiasts to alter their harmonic image, e.g., “A women’s club could chat in the same room in which the electric execution is taking place without taking any notice of it.”

Electric salvation, as an idée fixe of Western civilization since the eighteenth century, had only one weak point—although endless quantities of energy existed in nature, it could not be tapped so simply as water. Until the first power stations were erected and a centralized supply system developed, batteries remained the sole source of current. A battery was merely a container in which energy could be stored, like money in a piggy bank. No different in principle from the traditional purveyor of energy, fire, the battery was dependent upon being “recharged.” Once “burnt out,” it was an inanimate object, and though rechargeable, the limits of its capacity were ever-present. Obviously, it would not be possible to fully electrify the world using batteries.

This limit is best illustrated by the automobile, centerpiece of modern industrial technology, which has consistently proved resistant to electrification. Plans and efforts to electrify the automobile have always intrigued. The notion of soundless and odorless automobiles whizzing by fit excellently into the turn-of-the-twentieth century’s image of an electric modernity. From the beginning, the drawbacks of combustion engines, especially in urban traffic, were recognized and electrical remedies proposed. For several years in the early twentieth century, electromobiles were produced in the US. Since then, no generation has remained inactive in this area. Interest in electromotion is renewed with an almost cyclical progression, always with the same pro and con arguments: environmental friendliness on the positive side, and the battery problem on the negative. At first, batteries were too voluminous and heavy. Although this has changed with the overall miniaturization of technology, the electric automobile has become no more a mass product than the television-phone. There seems to be a threshold of psychic resistance regarding certain technological options. For some unknowable reason, a battery-powered car that must stop at a charging station as often as a gasoline-driven one must pull into a gas station has no appeal. Perhaps it is because it lacks the enchantment of energy as endlessly flowing and inexhaustible.

Thus it was electricity from a power supply network that made the complete electrification of life possible. Current produced by power stations was like an electric ocean, whose endless supply could be tapped as desired and in any dosage wished for, ranging from the amount needed to turn on the night-table lamp to that necessary to power Ford’s assembly line. The analogy with water, still recognizable in the term “current,” is not just metaphorical, for the system of electric distribution followed the model of water distribution. From the waterworks evolved the power station. Out of the water pipeline evolved the power supply network, out of the water faucet the electric switch. This is most clearly demonstrated when the supply is suddenly interrupted. Whoever has experienced a complete power failure knows the feeling of sitting suddenly “high and dry” with respect to civilization. It is not until a blackout that we experience to what extent our life is connected with the electric power grid, permeated by and dependent upon it. And it is no wonder that the vernacular for power failure, “blackout” (originally derived from stage lighting), has taken on an almost existential meaning, as it associates the sudden loss of current with that of consciousness and life. “Pulling the plug” is what the clinical ending of life is called, when apparatuses for maintaining life are turned off. Here, as in the case of the electric chair, electricity had arrived at an endpoint. But before electricity reached that point, it remodeled the world. Even the dispassionate technician’s term “electrification,” a technical version of the electrical fairy, contained some romantic-utopian resonance. Lenin’s fusing of electrification and communism proved this.

The magic and modernization created by the electric fairy and electrification lead to the critique of civilization by Nietzsche and by Spengler, who perceived and lamented a “feminization” of culture. Their jeremiads might be read as a reversal of the view of electricity as being “super-energy”; feminization was the disappearance of the virile and warlike in favor of feminine, pacifistic pleasure. Instead of fighting, comfort and consumption. In place of strength, sluggishness and weakness. Rather than will, passivity. What upset the critics of civilization was the disappearance of effort, resistance, and work in their physical as well as mental forms. In this sense, one might see them as the prophets of the “rye and iron” ideology.

Electricity’s disembodying effect was just as vivid in everyday life as in Zola’s image of the factory. One can read in social histories of the twentieth-century household how the most important functions were electrified: cooking, heating, lighting, domestic music, and all forms of cleaning, ranging from vacuuming to washing the dishes. The appliance that best encapsulated the changes wrought by electricity was the vacuum cleaner. It took the place of the cleaning hand, which had been active with brooms, dust mops, and rags. The filth does not come into actual contact with the vacuumer anymore; it is sucked from the floor and thrown away. Where once the fabric bag had to be emptied in a cloud of dust, the disposable paper bag made the process dust-proof.

Alongside this “disembodiment” of filth was the miniaturization of the machine. Before electrification, in the mid-nineteenth century, a type of vacuum cleaner existed, though it had little in common with that of today. These were vehicles as large as garbage trucks, powered by a steam engine that produced the necessary vacuum pressure. They drove from house to house. A work team brought the tubing (which was as large in diameter as a fire hose) into apartments, where the team cleaned. Maids and housewives merely finished up the fine points afterwards. As the motors of appliances were miniaturized, the vacuum cleaner shrank from still requiring a team of workers to the domain of the housewife alone. In the appliance industry’s advertising, the housewife holding it like a scepter has become a new variation of the “electric fairy.” (As a literary footnote, consider Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, where the vacuum cleaner undergoes a satirical reversal of its miniaturizing history by increasing monumentally in size. The vacuum cleaner salesman James Wormwold, who has fallen on hard times, sells a circuit diagram of his product to the British Secret Service as supposed plans for a clandestine Russian missile launching pad.)

Electrification distances sense and experience. Flames no longer burn in the light bulb or the electric stove; there is no longer a block of ice in the refrigerator; with an electric razor, there are no soapsuds. And so on and so forth, all the way to the disappearance of the piano from the music room, as it is replaced with the gramophone and stereo components. Electrification puts a distance between the senses and experience.

Perhaps the most significant disappearance was that of fire. Since the beginning of human culture, fire was the heart of the dwelling, either in the open fireplace or the closed oven. As darkness fell, the household’s members gathered around its glow and warmth. In mythology and poetry, the flame became symbol of life. Even after its functional division into the various actions of cooking, heating, and lighting, each of these retained some magical power. As the French philosopher and psychologist Gaston Bachelard said, “The lamp is the spirit that watches over every room. It is the center of the house. A house without a lamp is as unthinkable as a lamp without a house.” What he referred to was the flame burning on the wick, not an electric bulb whose light Bachelard characterized as “administrative light” (lumière administrée).[3] Produced in invisible power stations and distributed like any other faceless mass-product, administrative light flooded the world and established what one might call the “homeless light” of Edward Hopper.

Energy failure (“blackout”) brutally ends the regime of administrative light. In the vacuum created, there is a powerful return of sense and experience as the flame becomes again the primary source of light. An eyewitness to this return of the repressed is the German art historian Wilhelm Hausenstein. In 1942, he portrayed the sudden involuntary return of a pre-electric world due to the almost daily bombing attacks:

Lately, the electric lights have failed. We then have to rely upon the few candles that we have saved up. Having reached a point where the few good things left assume a heightened intensity, we become aware that all objects perceived in the “weaker” light of a candle acquire an altogether different dimension. Their relief seems to be higher and deeper at the same time. It feels as if the objects have regained their original corporality, something electric lighting took away from them. Superficially, electric light makes objects appear clearer and more distinct. In reality, it overwhelms and flattens them. Its glare literally eats up their bodies, their outlines, their substance. The flame of the candle, in contrast, redeems all that was lost. By restoring the shadows to objects, it restores, so to speak, their dignity and autonomy. And its brightness is just adequate to see what they really are, their poetry included.[4]

The return to candlelight in electric civilization is not limited to emergencies such as power failures. On the contrary, candles will always be lit when there is a desire to “turn off” our managed lives for a few hours. The candles on German Christmas trees and in cozy restaurants are intended to create “atmosphere.” This is part of the widespread phenomenon of archaic, antiquarian, or nostalgic retreats sought by our thoroughly technologized civilization as a way to switch off and relax.

Like every ruling system, electricity could not idly look on while such independent realms developed outside of its control. It had to attempt to satisfy mankind’s apparently ineradicable poetic desires with its own means. The development of entertainment media in the twentieth century is conclusive proof of how successful, if not totalitarian, electricity has become in the domain of escapism. One might call this a second electric salvation, begun at the moment when the first salvation (the abolition of bodily effort) lost its fascination. Electric escapism opened up new virtual worlds. It began 100 years ago with film, progressed further with radio, television, and stereophonics, and culminated in the Internet’s electronic ocean.

Virtual and ubiquitous, these realms have realized Paul Valéry’s oft-cited prophecy on the consequences of the electric disembodiment of the world:

It will be possible to send anywhere or to re-create anywhere a system of sensations, or more precisely a system of stimuli, provoked by some object or event in any given place. Works of art will acquire a kind of ubiquity. ... They will not merely exist in themselves but will exist wherever someone with a certain apparatus happens to be.[5]

This ubiquity lasts as long as the power supply functions. If the power fails, it ends. Thus are the catastrophes of an electronic age. One is reminded of Figaro’s words to his master (in Beaumarchais and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro), “You dance, I play the tune.”

Translated from the German by Julia Bernard. The author wishes to thank Christina Spellman for her invaluable support in adapting this text from its original form, including her suggestion for the final line from Figaro.

  1. AEG and Siemens were the largest electric companies, Krupp and Thyssen the dominating steel trusts. Walther Rathenau was the head of AEG. Villa Huegel was Alfred Krupp’s residence in Essen. Alfred Hugenberg was the nationalist-reactionary press czar during the Weimar republic and one of those responsible for its destruction.
  2. Émile Zola, Travail (Paris: Harmattan, 1993), pp. 545–546.
  3. Gaston Bachelard, La Flamme d’une chandelle (Paris: P.U.F., 1961), p. 8 and p. 90.
  4. Wilhelm Hausenstein, Licht unter dem Horizont, Tagebücher von 1942 bis 1946 (Munich: Bruckmann, 1967), p. 273. Translation by Angela Davies.
  5. Paul Valéry, “The Conquest of Ubiquity,” in Collected Works of Paul Valéry, vol. 13, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Pantheon, 1964), pp. 225–226.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch is a historian of culture dividing his time between New York and Berlin.

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